As soon as you were born, your parents applied for your Social Security number. What does this number mean, and what is it used for?

What is a Social Security number?

A Social Security number, or SSN, is a nine digit number that is unique to you. The first three numbers give your area of location at birth. The second two are the group numbers, which identify your location more specifically within your area. The last four numbers are serial numbers that have no specific meaning. They are assigned in order from 0001 to 9999, and when those are used up, the first five numbers change. The Social Security Administration has a very specific method for assigning numbers, which you can read more about on the SSA's website for teens (see the Links table).

The main use of your SSN is to track your Social Security benefits and income for taxes. However, others may use your SSN as a way to identify you. Banks, hospitals, and private businesses frequently reference your personal information with your SSN in order to make their record keeping easier. As you can probably guess, the fact that much of your private information is tied to one number that belongs only to you can pose some problems.

What kind of problems?

One of the most common forms of identity theft is when someone discovers your SSN and uses it to access personal information. For example, someone with your name and SSN could walk into your bank pretending to be you, claim that they forgot their (your) account number, and instead provide your SSN. They might make changes to your account by making withdrawals or transferring funds. They could open checking accounts, apply for credit cards and loans in your name, and more. A hacker can use your SSN to view personal information that you have placed online. Many people do not discover that they have become a victim of identity theft until they try to make a big purchase such as a car or house.

How can I protect my SSN?

You should commit your SSN to memory, and never give it out when it is optional. If someone requests your SSN and you do not understand why they could need it, ask. If you need a password for an online service, do not make it your SSN. If the online service provider automatically makes your SSN your password, change it. Also, you should carefully check your credit card and bank account statements every month to see if there is any unusual activity. If you find something that catches your attention, contact your creditor or bank.

Your SSN is necessary access a wide range of benefits. However, you need to be careful about how you share it with others, because it can be used against you.
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